Sep 27, 2011
It’s nice being a consultant. People like consultants because we have a specific approach to a problem. We talk to lots of people, look at lots of documents, conduct workshops. Then we synthesize what we have learned and create judgments and opinions, and then we document everything to the nth degree. Some people would argue we talk to too many people – but the value we bring is in developing a comprehensive and external point of view that is broad. Some people would argue that too much (hopefully) documentation comes out of projects. While most of my projects are boiled down to a 12 page powerpoint, there is usually a couple hundred pages of backup material and some really complex spreadsheets that prove my point. At the end of the day, I can talk to as many people as I want, form whatever judgment I feel is right, and it’s all for naught if I don’t document it all. 2 years down the road, it’s just a piece of paper nobody looks at because nobody understands how the conclusions were made. So I tend to document.
I say all of this because the process is important. There is a flow between collaboration and exploration, to knowledge creation, to information creation. We’ve been talking about knowledge management for ages. Let’s face it – knowledge management has not necessarily worked out. It’s an old topic that many people are sick of hearing about, but the truth of it is that we still don’t manage the knowledge in our organizations well. Many of our organizations still have thousands upon thousands of documents stored in Sharepoint databases, but they are poorly versioned, not well cataloged, and hard to find. If knowledge management practices of 10 years ago had panned out, we would have it all figured out by now. Part of the problem is that we’ve changed technologies and user requirements rather rapidly, but at the core of the problem, we really didn’t understand what it was that we were actually cataloging. Turns out, it was not all about knowledge management at all.
Let’s take a sample process. If we are creating a business case, we create a task force or project team to investigate the problem, any risks, possible interactions, costs, etc. Through this process, a significant amount of collaboration happens in the course of the investigation and discovery, after which some sort of decisions are made. It is through the collaboration that knowledge is often created. However, we can’t manage that knowledge that is created until the information is created in the form of the business case. A good business case will document not only why we want to do something, but how, what were the risks and costs, and all the other components. The business case, or the information we can catalog, is the output of the knowledge gained, that which we cannot catalog.
So we talk about knowledge management, all the while realizing that we can’t catalog what is in people’s heads. We can only capture what they record – and this has gotten more interesting as we have gone from documents to blogs and wikis. But the quality of that content is still in flux. Do people actually record everything that went into their decisions? Do they only blog about what is interesting to them? If a high performer leaves the organization and they were a good documenter and quality blogger, how do you know that you still have all the knowledge they produced with they worked for you?
In today’s world, we talk a lot about how to create productivity gains from collaboration networks – and this is clearly important – it’s the starting point of knowledge creation. We’ve spent years talking about knowledge management and how to catalog – and this is also important. We’ve created knowledge bases that are not always optimized, but it’s a starting point. What we have not done is effectively have a conversation about information and the quality of that information in the organization. How do we actually make sure that all of our data is good data and that it’s complete? Collaboration and knowledge is the starting point, but I think we need to start having a discussion about what is next.